Why LA Lakers' Role Players Thrive in Mike D'Antoni's System

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Why LA Lakers' Role Players Thrive in Mike D'Antoni's System
Ned Dishman/Getty Images
Wesley Johnson (left), Xavier Henry (middle) and Nick Young (right) of the L.A. Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers’ role players have thrived in Mike D’Antoni’s system, and, really, that is a testament to his coaching acumen.

D’Antoni has traditionally done a good job of plugging and playing guys in all of his coaching stops. His rotation players have mostly enjoyed career seasons under his watch, if not close to it.

To be fair though, one cannot also ignore the fact he has clashed with superstars such as Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Furthermore, he had trouble adapting his philosophy in 2012-13 to his personnel, which resulted in the demotion of Pau Gasol from the starting lineup.

It is widely known around the league that D’Antoni is a non-confrontational coach, and consequently, he will struggle with headstrong players that fail in recognizing or accepting their roles.

This became widely apparent when he discussed Howard’s refusal to accept his role, as Vincent Bonsignore of Los Angeles Daily News shared:

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Mike D'Antoni struggled coaching the tandem of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in 2012-13.

“There was just a lot of conflict, emotionally," D'Antoni said. "People were not settled in their roles. But it's funny because a lot of times players will say 'I don't know my role.' It's not that you don't know it, you just don't accept it.”

On the flip side, give him players that fit within the framework of his system and essentially, D’Antoni will get the best out of them.

This has been particularly obvious in Los Angeles despite the absences of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash due to injuries. This is where the importance of management working with the coaching staff shines through.

Indeed, Mitch Kupchak has given D’Antoni the roster needed to execute his offense. Granted, the Lakers have been inefficient on this end roughly through the first quarter of the 82-game schedule, but the players have produced.

The former Phoenix Suns coach favors pushing the pace and spreading the floor with three-point shooters. It goes without saying that when easy transition opportunities arise, his teams will jump on them.

When faced with executing their half-court offense, they will focus on creating long-range looks. Thus, the Lakers always surround the perimeter with shooters. In order to complement their snipers, the Lakers always have at least one solid ball-handler on the floor.

The primary dribbler’s job is to get into the pick-and-roll and force defenders to converge into the lane. Jordan Farmar and Nick Young are two of the most explosive Lakers off the bounce in this setting, and they have given defenses some issues.

The Lakers will run a series of screen-and-rolls and force the opposition to make the correct adjustment every single time, which is a fairly tall order. One must determine whether to stay at home on shooters or rotate into the paint and impede the path of the player coming down the lane.

Watch below as Nick Young gets all the way to the basket:

Even players that are not great ball-handlers can get into the action, especially early in possessions before defenses get set. Xavier Henry illustrates this below:

The perimeter guys basically have the freedom to run actions as they see fit, and their teammates will adjust, as Henry noted to ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin:

“Everybody is really interchangeable on the wings and even the point," Henry said. "You’ll see anybody bring it up, you’ll see both Steves, you’ll see Jordan (Farmar). It doesn’t matter. Jodie (Meeks) will bring it up. Anybody that is out on the perimeter can play everybody’s spot. So, it’s not a big deal.”

The three-point shooting opens up the floor for drives, and the forays to the basket also help set up the long ball. Opponents are often faced with picking the lesser of two evils and yet, that is difficult to determine in the matter of a split second.

Further exacerbating issues, D’Antoni loves his small-ball lineups. He will often play only one true big man and surround him with perimeter players. The means that interior players have room to operate when they catch the ball in the basket area.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Jordan Hill is getting more scoring chances in 2013-14.

In related news, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre are converting at career-high rates from the field in the early part of the season. Keep in mind, as much as the big guys benefit from the smaller five-man units, their perimeter comrades are better for it as well.

The wing players do not have to worry about post players clogging the lane and removing driving angles. That leaves the Lakers with countless opportunities to attack with pick-and-rolls and isolations.

The latter method is not always a wise approach to scoring given that it typically produces low shooting percentages, but it comes with a substantial plus. D’Antoni instills trust in his team and as a result, the Lakers have the proverbial green light.

Granted, the fact that Los Angeles is converting 47.5 percent of its field goals in this setting, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), does not hurt.

For the most part, the Lakers play within the confines of the system, but they will freestyle every now and then when appropriate. It keeps defenses off-balance, but more importantly, it gives the players confidence.

Nick Young shared as much with the L.A. Daily News' Mark Medina during training camp: "He’s [D’Antoni] been on me when I was passing so much,” said Young, who’s averaged 11.3 points and one assist in his six seasons. “I didn’t have that in a while. I’m excited."

D’Antoni’s system has inflated the productivity of the Lakers’ role players, and not so coincidentally, the team has overachieved despite the absence of its starting backcourt.

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